Bobby Brown’s ‘Don’t Be Cruel’ Album Turns 25
The singer’s debonair style, sexually-charged dance moves and hook-driven tracks made him a household name. Brown’s persona, back then, put him in the ranks of legends like Marvin Gaye and David Ruffin — men who were soulful and had swagger that seduced audiences.
In 1985, Brown left New Edition after years of discourse between the members. The Boston native was determined to step out of the shadows of his former group and become a star on his own.
His 1986 debut album, ‘King of Stage,’ was mildly successful but wasn’t a major hit on the charts. The sugar-coated ballad ‘Girlfriend,’ written and produced by Cameo frontman Larry Blackmon, was the LP’s only No. 1 R&B single.
Dissatisfied with the dismal sales of his debut album, Brown wanted to work with producers who could give him a mature sound and not the regressive pop confections that he once sang with New Edition.
Late MCA record executive Louil Silas, Jr., was also determined to make Brown an R&B sensation. He set up a meeting with Brown and two aspiring producers: Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds and his music partner Antonio “L.A.” Reid. The production duo already had a few hits under their belts with the Whispers (‘Rock Steady’), Peebles (‘Mercedes Boy’) and the Boys (‘Dial My Heart’).
Brown visited Babyface and L.A. in their Los Angeles apartment and after listening to their rough demos of ‘Don’t Be Cruel’ and ‘Every Little Step,’ agreed to work with them.
“We wrote songs that were sweet and nice, but they also had a little edge to them,” recalls Babyface in a 2011 interview. “Bobby was pretty agreeable when he heard the material.”
Not long after that initial meeting, Brown began recording songs with them at Silver Lake Studios in Los Angeles.
“Bobby had a pure vibe and a passion that was unmistakable, but he just needed a little guidance,” said Babyface. “We just went in and recorded without problems. We didn’t spend a lot of time in the studio, but listening to Bobby Brown record those songs, it was obvious that he had star power.”
Silas also tapped a young studio maverick named Teddy Riley, who was looking for a singer who could take his New Jack Swing sound from the streets to the mainstream. Brown was up for the challenge.
‘Don’t Be Cruel’ was largely produced by Babyface and L.A., with Teddy Riley collaborating with Brown on ‘My Prerogative.’
New Jack Swing pioneer Bernard Belle, who worked with Riley on ‘Prerogative,’ said Brown was destined to be a superstar.
“Bobby Brown was a ball of energy, and Bobby was never tired,” he recalled in a 2003 interview. “Bobby and I clicked. In the studio, if you told him to do something and it didn’t come out right, he’d be willing to do it over, and over, and over again. That’s the best way to describe Bobby back then — he was hungry.”
‘Don’t Be Cruel’ was not only a successful album for Brown, it also shaped a new movement in Black pop. The set’s first single, ‘Don’t Be Cruel,’ with its infectious drums and echoic kick snares, reached No. 1 on the R&B charts.
The singer soon followed that with his bold anthem, ‘My Prerogative,’ which garnered him his first-ever No. 1 hit on the pop charts.
He enjoyed a few more chart-topping hits from the album, including the bouncy ‘Every Little Step,’ the seductive ‘Roni’ and the tender ballad, ‘Rock Wit Cha.’
Brown also broke a few records with ‘Don’t Be Cruel.’ At the age of 19, he became the first teenager since Stevie Wonder in the 1960s to have a No. 1 album.
Additionally, ‘Don’t Be Cruel’ became the best-selling album of 1989 with seven million copies sold that year. For his hard work, Brown earned himself a Grammy award in 1990, for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance for ‘Every Little Step.’
His 1992 follow-up, ‘Bobby,’ couldn’t match the success of ‘Don’t Be Cruel’ and, by that time, fans moved on to the bad-boy bravado of R. Kelly and Jodeci.
Meanwhile, rumors of drug abuse tainted Brown’s career followed by his tumultuous marriage with the late pop icon Whitney Houston.
Undoubtedly, ‘Don’t Be Cruel’ set the tone for how R&B albums should sound. Today, we can even see reflections of Brown’s bad-boy charisma in artists like Chris Brown, Usher and Trey Songz, just to name a few.
Watch Bobby Brown’s ‘Don’t Be Cruel’ Video
Watch Bobby Brown’s ‘My Prerogative’ Video
Watch Bobby Brown’s ‘Every Little Step’ Video
Watch Bobby Brown’s ‘Tenderoni’ (Live) Video